The United World team met with the Research Council’s Dr. Hilal Ali Zaher Al Hinai Secretary General of The Research Council to discuss their role in Oman.
What is in your opinion the recipe for success in Oman?
The recipe for success for any nation is its human resources, and although Oman is slow in terms of the size of population, over recent history has demonstrated what hard work, dedicated and a vision can achieve. Before HM took over, we were living literally, in some sort of medieval times, very few people who could read and write, very few schools and no hospitals. To reach what Oman is now with limited financial resources has been possible with the hard work and dedication of the people. For me, the human resources is the capital of Oman. Education has transformed a significant portion of the population, higher skills, knowledge, attitude towards work and the work environment.
One of the priorities of the vision 20/20 is to diversify into different fields. The research council was established in 2005 which was much later than other things, what are the reasons behind this council, and what have been the activities in the 9 years since it was formed?
When you say late, it is all relative. Research requires universities, human resources, the environment to support it. The focus initially was to bring schools, then universities and it took time to develop its undergraduate programs, its research capacity and at the time SQU was the main research hub in the country. Other universities have come since then and so the research council was formed as a framework, a platform to start supporting research, to set the framework for research to yield more value to the country.
In 2012, the budget expenditure was around 0.2 %, the government in the last 5 year plan wants to increase it to 2 % of the GDP - for this year, what is the forecast for expenditure in Oman?
As a country, we are lucky that our GDP has developed significantly and that the expenditure is significant but that ratio has not increased but the actual value has increased. The actual value in expenditure has more than tripled but the ratio has not changed much more than the .2 % - but it takes time for spending, for funding - we are expanding a number of programs, most important is how can we spend to achieve the right objectives, to add value in research and research infrastructure, building the environment to capture knowledge from the research.
What would be some projects that you would like to highlight or present as priorities?
We have two main builders - we have the research which is the knowledge generation part of it and then we have innovation which is the value capture from knowledge. As a focus on priority, the research strategy has put priority on different sectors, health, energy, education, ICT etc. When we developed the strategy, we thought about what would be the one thing that if we invested, we could be the best in the world? For example, water is a need, energy, food is a need. We've looked at water and can we become the best at water desalination for example and we realize that we don't yet have the human resources to be the best in the world or even the region. Renewable energy as another example, can we be the best - not necessarily as generators of that knowledge. We've looked at other areas where we have strength, such as the oil industry and there are many Omanis who have good experience in this field and there are several Omani companies who are competitive in that sector, at least regionally. Many companies are impacting that sector at the national level. So one area is in enhanced oil recovery where we have been participating in the development of enhanced oil recovery technologies with our partners in the industry, the main reason behind it that it is important for us - the technologies that we develop can be used in other countries. Our difficult oil fields have been very good grounds for developing that technology, Oman has been quite famous for adopting and adapting new technologies. So if we focus on that, we already have needs, capabilities, our market, local market and if we succeed in that aspect, then we may be able to support our other needs. What is enhanced oil recovery, trying to extract more oil from the ground using different technologies for example, steam injection where we use a significant amount of gas, that steam injection if achieved by solar energy, which has been demonstrated in the field in Oman so far. If we manage to save that gas, we can use it for something else, but if we produce steam using solar energy, then that technology can be used in a turbine to produce electricity or in a absorption chiller to produce cooling, and obviously that will introduce us to solar tech to capture value. Also in the enhanced recovery, there is a lot of water used that needs to be treated, so if we manage to develop tech to treat that water then that tech can be used to treat seawater, or desalinating seawater becomes a piece of cake, easy and achievable. The same thing in ICT. In oil fields, we can create a niche area to be used in our fields but also marketed to other parts of the world. We have been seeing significant development along those lines since the research strategy has been applied. Already solar energy has been applied in the oil fields in Oman and that application is actually a world first and leading option in this region. The problem of dust has been a problem for this application in the region and what has been tried and tested in Oman has significantly eliminated that problem and reduced the cost of solar power generation to be competitive with gas, which is a big issue. This innovation will have an impact for the country for its sustainability for the future. It is a partnership, we don't need to create the knowledge but if you work with partners to capture the value from the knowledge and provide a platform for those technologies then it is always a win win situation.
What about activities that relate more directly to the population, for example road safety? How are you working to improve road safety through research?
As a research area, we developed a program around road traffic accidents. The program has several themes, the behavior of drivers, the infrastructure of roads, the legal system and regulatory system and the post trauma care aspects of it. With these programs, the objective is to find solutions and obviously we try to find those from the best centers from around the world. We started with the development of a database for road accidents in Oman that was achieved with the transport research laboratory in the UK, we have three or four other agreements with Queensland university in Australia, with some top universities in the US - so they will have an impact. One analysis was in heavy vehicles and over capacity of these vehicles and the ministry has already taken some steps to try and minimize that impact. That is an example of what we call strategic or directorate programs. We also have other programs in trying to identify areas that require more focus and research in social programs. We're trying to establish programs for national centers of excellence in certain niche areas, we've been funding some programs for nano-technology for water desalination, on material science, capturing value from the mineral resources of Oman at Sohar U and SQU, we are now evaluating several projects on bio diversity, environment, entrepreneurship - so we are expanding our funding, programs developing capacities so that we can achieve the objectives that the research council is setting up.
About your project with the research park, an ongoing project that was supposed to be finished this year, what is the update?
The infrastructure is there and we have been marketing it to some companies who plan to relocate there. In Phase one we are building a center, our headquarters for incubators, prototyping, we have completed the skeleton for that - called Innovation Park Muscat, it has a name now and is next to SQU near knowledge oasis.
How would you position Oman in terms of research in the MENA region?
We have been collecting statistical indicators. The region as a whole, in terms of research application items, is significantly under achieving compared to the rest of the world and Oman is part of this, we are comparable in terms of productivity per capita with the region (Qatar, UAE, KSA) but are we happy with what has been developed or achieved so far? Not really, we have just started with the research, with the funding...obviously the strategy is to spend more per GDP and we hope that the expenditure over the next 5 year plan will increase. The country has high expectations on research and development for the next phase of development
What are the areas of cooperation between Oman and the US that you expect in the reseach sector?
I think we have significant level of partnership with the US - there is no one clear example within the academic sector but I've mentioned a significant development which is the application of knowledge such as the American company working with PDO actually transforming the future of solar energy, an innovation has been identified, and supported by funding here and prototyped and now the benefits are spilling over to the rest of the region and then the rest of the world. Renewable energy is as important element in this partnership and we hope that it will develop and evolve and such collaborations will continue to enhance the value capture in the sector. In the marine environment, there is also significant investment from the country in which many American institutions are either participating or we would like them to get involved. We are hosting at least a meeting, an American / Arab meeting for young scientists in December where state of the art tech will be presented and highlighted and hopefully collaborations will be developed along the lines of oil and gas exploration.
As the Secretary general of The Research Council, how would you like to see the institution evolve personally over the next few years?
Well, the institution has evolved significantly over the last few years, we have been expanding our infrastructure and support programs and I can see now several outputs, innovation outputs being presented and some of our funding is of the highest international calibre. In one case we have scientists from MIT writing to a researcher from SQU wanting to collaborate, so within some areas where we want to develop we have now improved, the quantity and the quality of the research output, and so I'm quite hopeful that Oman can be a regional hub for innovation in the region and we are along that line. The way I see it now, it is materializing - renewable energy, water treatment and the technologies developed in Oman, smart oilfields - software developed by Omanis to bring the best in terms of productivity, so I'm quite hopeful that Oman can be a significant platform for technological development. We have our new university that will be focused on science and technology, Oman University, and linked with that we have the Science and Technology city that will also provide a significant platform, focused on nano-technology and the developments that will be achieved in the near future using that technology.